On Ownership

The people who have the most impact in a company, especially startups, have one thing in common: they can successfully own things.

Dissecting Ownership: So what does owning something mean: Can you own a launch? Can you own the design? Can you own the development? Can you own company analytics?

If yes, then you’re in charge of doing it and making sure it’s done to perfection. It doesn’t matter if it falls outside your job title. Sometimes the responsibilities may belong to some other department, but you will fill in the gaps when required and as you see them.

For example, just being a designer is different than owning design. A designer may just do his job when asked, but when you own the design you will care enough to rethink designs people don’t ask you to do and sweat the details on a release.

That’s a huge difference.

When you own things you either pick an area or pick a problem you want to solve and then solve it.

People who can own things do not need to be constantly told what to do but can find problems which don’t work and solve it themselves. When we hire people we give them a few problems to solve enough for them to identify an area of ownership.

The Qualities of Ownership:

1. Ownership is not given to you; you take it.

It’s very similar to leadership. It’s usually not given to you, you do it. It belongs to those who take it.

People who hire you can identify some areas of a company you will own, but your true area of ownership is defined by you and what you will solve. Similar to leadership, people can bring you on as a leader, but whether you truly lead depends on you.

There are way too many things to be built in a company than hours in a day to solve them. People who can identify that and fix them are so critical especially in the early stages and take the initiative to do it.

2. Owning things is hard (and fun)

Pointing problems out is always easy. Giving recommendations is easy. Analyzing what’s wrong is easy. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines of any company and complain and recommend and analyze.

It’s hard to do things and solve them. It’s sweating a lot of details. It’s caring enough. All these things are hard.

But at the end of the day it’s extremely fulfilling.

3. Owning things goes above functions and departments

Under a structure of owning there is no way to work other than collaboration. Problems in startups especially require working with different functions more because there aren’t enough specialized people for each role.

In a structure like this, your care will drive getting things done.

Lastly, the key for a startup is not just to hire people with the qualities of ownership but also create an environment where it thrives and building a kind of management structure around it.

Holocracy is such an example adopted by companies (including Medium) or the one (wo)man startup concept explored by AngelList. A management structure and management team which encourages ownership is critical. Ownership has to be supported by management or else it would fail and as a startup you have to be fluid enough to figure out which one can work instead of defaulting on a traditional management structure.

Defining things

Defining things

This is the third essay I’m writing in the series on important qualities in employees.

Can I define it? This is a question I ask myself frequently.

Why is definition important?

My rule of thumb in definitions is: If you can’t define it, it doesn’t exist.

If you can’t define what someone’s role is, you cannot be upset how it turns out later.

Every role has a responsibility of defining things. Especially in startups. As companies grow bigger and more structured more roles become completely defined. You may have little undefined time like in Google (20% undefined time), but as the company grows most of your role becomes really structured.

This is rarely talked about, and that’s what separates the exceptional people from the mediocre ones.

In a startup the early employees define a lot of what their roles are and what the company does. The hard thing with definition is that it sounds and looks deceptively easy, but in practice it’s very hard to do right. People who can define things well are rare. It’s a quality that is hard to measure.

Let’s look at some roles:

1. A CEO’s job is to define vision. What is the company working toward?

2. Product managers define what goes in a product in every release. Good product managers can define what goes into the product really well.

3. An engineer defines how things will work.

4. A designer defines how the user experience will look and what works on a page aesthetically.

5. A manager has to define what roles everyone on his/her team will do.

The list can go on and on. But any role dissected has a component of defining, and exceptional people do define things really well.

How does definition look?

Definition looks like metrics or written text.

Every company has a way of defining the broader metrics.

You may have a company dashboard – it’s a way of defining what is most important and focusing people on it.  Or you may just simply have those numbers white boarded out.

Google’s OKR is a way of defining everyone’s contribution in a company.  That’s why a goal-setting exercise is important because it defines something.

What works for any company may not work for you – there is no universal best way to define things. It is completely dependent on your company culture and what works with the people you have.

Definition in product may look like documentation.

Definition in coding may look like comments.

Being able to recognize it is important, because we have to differentiate definition from notes.

Startups fear definition and structure

 When we are starting a company what is required to be defined is the most essential. What is the problem we’re trying to solve and how to make it useful? When we aren’t solving the right problem nothing else matters.

But as a company grows, (I will put a magic number around this say 10 or 15) and hires a lot more people – that’s when definition becomes a lot more important.

Slowly adding definition to roles at this point becomes important.  Especially post product market fit.

Change is hard, but change around definition is critical to growth.

 Additional notes while I was writing this:

1. The word documentation is used very loosely in development. And the reason documentation is important is not to document for documentation sake, because documentation helps us define things.

I’ve met people who think of documentation as nonessential.

Documentation for most part in other words is defining what it will do on paper.

When someone asks someone to document something it means defining it either partially or fully.

There is a difference between documenting what’s already been defined and documenting it to define it.

The latter is really important and not to be mistaken with the former.

2. The only form of definition, which is valid, is in written form.

You can define in your mind, but it’s the best practice to define on paper. After all writing helps to clear things up even further.

Working memory of people is short and so my rule is paper definitions are the only ones that count.

3. It’s really important to define a role not just for the role’s sake but yourself as well.

When I say defining a role, I mean defining what a person will own. And ownership in turn leads to happiness and fulfillment. First work of a manager is to define roles.

Anything outside of definition is initiative.

Caring about things

Screenshot 8:10:13 3:04 PM-2


If I had to single out the most important quality people in the startup community should have, I’m not sure it would be intelligence, raw intelligence, IQ, competence or niceness or attitude or being effective or transparent or humility.

All of the above are important, and the combination of the above qualities makes for the best hires.

But for me, the most important quality is care.

Caring enough to solve company problems.

Caring enough to move things.

It sounds so simple. But when you think deeply, it’s so hard to find. Usually the founders of a startup care the most, but to hire people who care even close to the intensity about your company that you do is hard. How can you find people to care about the problems you’re trying to solve? It’s really hard to find.

For an employee, it goes beyond yourself and working toward something larger than yourself.

It’s not just caring about design if you’re a designer or solving the hardest engineering problems but problems that a company faces. Caring enough to move things and make things happen.

Most of the problems in a startup take more than one person. To get things done you just can’t care about your own work or yourself. You need to care enough to collaborate to solve things. You have to care to fix and build what’s broken and missing. And you can’t do it alone, but you need to care enough to get it done. It requires collaboration, knowing how to work with people and sweating details.

Most people do what they’re told; it’s just the easy way out. Caring about the bigger goal is the more difficult road.

Also I’m not saying it’s the only quality to look for, there has to be competence (skill) and integrity. But it’s the one thing that stands out in the best people I’ve worked with and is not talked about enough.

How do you find people who care about things? You can detect it to some extent when you interview them and hear them talking about what they’ve built, what they’ve solved and how they did it. Did someone in operations suggest a feature for a product, did a designer take initiative beyond product design and what he’s told to solve something else, did an engineer build things which wasn’t asked of him which proved to be some pivotal things? These are some easy examples of people caring about something bigger.  People who care usually have taken initiative in various forms and probably failed at times but they cared enough to do it in the first place.

To understand early signs of people who have cared when interviewing: asking what they’ve failed at, what they’ve taken initiative to do and most importantly why they did the things they did in their previous job.

As companies grow in size this quality becomes a little less critical.

For startups, we have to build companies with people who care. There is no shortcut.

Change is hard and the only way to create change is through care. 

Some additional notes as I was thinking about this:

1. If someone is really smart but doesn’t care, they’ll do what they’re told and fix things but won’t extend themselves beyond that. That’s where hiring people with just skill or high raw intelligence can go wrong.

2. Niceness does not equate to caring intensely about things. Neither does humility or integrity.

3. Time needed to manage people who care is a lot less.

4. Caring and compensation: I don’t think you can incentivize someone to care. It comes from within. If a person doesn’t care, throwing more money or equity can’t convert a person.

5. As a manager you can help develop that quality –by giving people autonomy and respect. Allowing them to go outside their roles to build and fix things. You can build a culture of a company that values care over anything else, intentionally.

Moving things

Moving things in a company is really hard.

Everyone’s role in a company is to move things (or be part of it) at any point. Without exception.

Moving things requires ownership. Moving things require care. And not just intense care about what you do but caring about making a company successful beyond yourself.

Let’s look at a possible scenario:

You are a designer. Let’s say you don’t like the current layout or a part of the product.

What do you do to move this in motion and fix things?

You come up with a new flow. Highlight the problems.

Convince people of your ideas.


Convince people more.

Work with the engineers or a product manager to change it.

Test it after it’s live. It doesn’t look quite like what you had in mind, so you file some bugs.

Test again.

Possibly iterate.

At this step what you had initially imagined has moved in motion.

In this situation you only move something if you go through the whole thing. It requires a person to be extremely vested in the entire process. If you’re just passionate about the designing aspect, you may lose interest after the prototyping stage. Then it’s not your “problem” anymore, you played your part.

You have to be vested in moving things to make stuff a reality.

And every step has challenges. So your end goal is to move it; that’s the only way it ‘s going to happen. Not protoype as a designer, not code as an engineer, not operations or sales. Just moving things. That’s everyone’s role.

Startups have to be filled with people who can move things. That’s the only way things move quickly.

In another scenario you may meet with managers, create a document (or a Powerpoint) about ideas which should be done and then do nothing about it. Moving things on the ground requires hard work. The rest is relatively easier.

The qualities of people who are movers:

1. Caring enough – Not just about yourself or your skill. But about the company, about things bigger than yourself. Most problems are solved not by intelligence but by caring enough to solve it.

2. Persistence – There are so many little challenges for any form of problem.

3. Collaboration – If you can’t work with people, you can’t move things. Everything can’t be done alone.

Moving things require doers. Not talkers. It requires execution. Requires people who are willing to play in the battlefield and not be critics. All of this stuff is hard. But it’s a choice we make when we join a company especially a startup whether we want to move things or not. Whether we care about moving things.

You see a problem? Do you care about moving it? We can choose to safely ignore a lot of problems we see. We need to choose to move every day or be part of something someone is moving. That is really hard work.

I’m in no way advocating trying to solve all problems one sees.You have to pick your battles, but pick some and solve them. Move them. Own it and solve.

That’s the kind of people to seek to hire, who turn out be strong A-players. This is irrespective of skill.

What do you care about?  Care about it enough to move it. That’s what matters.

More notes on moving things as I wrote this:

1. Moving things becomes harder as companies become bigger. It’s still very challenging.

2. Helping people move things is big in itself. Shows you’re an amplifier, a team player.

3. Not calling it execution, because it’s not just your role you’re executing on but execution of a much larger thing.

4. Different industries require this in different lengths. When you’re a consultant you may not be able to move things as I describe, but there is a different form of impact.

5. When you don’t care about moving things –it’s time to leave.